If you enjoy photography, a visit to Leitz Park, the new home for Leica cameras, will provide plenty of inspiration
The grey architecture of the business park, 50 miles north of Frankfurt, would be a challenge for any amateur photographer. Buildings gather around expanses of pale concrete paving, like a low-rise version of Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, with little of the height, and none of the history. Uniform windows of near-mirrored glass reveal little of the interiors, and flat roofs underscore a dull winter sky. The only colour on this sombre December afternoon comes from the illuminated distinctive red dot of the Leica logo and its italic white writing. Flat light is the final obstacle to taking a decent picture. Thank goodness there’s a café.
The Leitz Park factory complex may be new, but it is a continuation of a 100-year story. The Germans are rightly known for their manufacturing expertise and, in optics, the names Carl Zeiss and Leica are bywords for quality. The historical origins of both companies are close to this location in the neighbouring towns of Solms and Wetzlar. This area has specialised in the manufacturing of lenses for microscopes since the mid-19th century, and the new factory park on the outskirts of Wetzlar is the latest chapter.
The Leica story starts in the early 20th century, when Oskar Barnack, formerly an engineer at Carl Zeiss who by 1911 was working at Ernst Leitz optics, created a more portable camera than had previously been possible. (Barnack suffered from asthma so didn’t want to carry around heavy equipment.) The various prototypes eventually became the M camera, and, within a few years, many renowned photographers adopted it to shoot some of the most famous images of the 20th century.
Behind the scenes
As you’d expect, Leica isn’t shy about identifying itself with some of these well-known names, and the world-changing events that they captured. In the Leica Gallery at Leitz Park you’ll see images from Aleksandr Rodchenko, Andre Kertesz, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston and Robert Frank.
Pre-booked factory tours are available, or you can visit the Leica Gallery (for free), which has year-round changing exhibitions; tour the Leica Museum (by prior arrangement only); visit the shop (be careful, it’s easy to spend a five-figure sum); stay at the hotel, with its in-house photography exhibition; and even drop your own vintage Leica in for repairs.
Best of all, you can enjoy all of this without subscribing to the Leica cult; namely that owning one of the M series cameras and its outstanding lenses is necessary to take outstanding photos. What’s undoubtedly true is that these are beautiful cameras that are a triumph of technological innovation while staying true to their historical pedigree in terms of design and philosophy. Leica produces several different models and some are affordable to mere mortals, but if you want the current flagship M10 then the body-only retails for about £6,000, and an all-round Summilux-M 21mm f/1.4 ASPH lens will be another £5,500.
Whether you can afford this or not, the question remains: is it worth it? Well, there’s little doubt that having a Leica slung over your shoulder is a short-hand indication that you are very serious about photography. Beyond that, it’s rather like buying an expensive watch – high production values, limited production run, and a history that reassures. Your photos may be no better than the next Nikon, Canon or Sony photographer, but then again, it’s a hobby, no different from weekend cyclists who spend £10,000 on a bike.
If you do a tour, you’ll get an insight into the level of engineering that goes into all of this (parts of the factory are forbidden to curious eyes because of proprietary secrets and new products). The Leica M10 is made from 1,100 components, including top and base plates milled from solid blocks of metal that are ground and polished by hand in a 40-minute process, 126 screws and 17 optical elements, all finished off with more than 50 adjustment steps.
Spend some time at Leitz Park and you’ll also see those austere buildings gradually reveal a sense of fun. One of them is in the shape of a roll of film, complete with eye holes around the edge, while another has a giant viewfinder on its façade. There is a statue of a giant lens, while the hotel (managed by Arcona) has a photography theme running throughout, including temporary exhibitions in the restaurant. In short, if you love photography, you’ll love exploring this place.
The Leica Gallery has a fun exhibition that as well as giving a whirlwind tour of the camera also has displays of fake cameras manufactured in the Far East and Russia, some dating back to the 1940s. There are models of Leica cameras through the ages, though the original prototype is so valuable that it is kept in a bank vault, and they wouldn’t reveal where, despite me offering to tell them the location of the Queen’s Crown Jewels in return.
Back to the beginnings
Then there’s Wetzlar, a gem of a medieval town where Goethe spent some happy – and unhappy – months in 1772, using his experience of unrequited love as a basis for his book The Sorrows of Young Werther. The old Leica factory is still visible from the bridge across the river Lahn, and you can wander the streets of half-timbered houses, practising your photography. While we did so we were questioned by groups of German students who, in perfect English, asked us our opinions about social media for a school project. It was difficult to deny being addicted while at the same time trying to upload our street scenes to Instagram.
The world of Leica now incorporates everything from free Akademie workshops through to weekends away with world-class photographers. Of course, you can take excellent photos with your smartphone (Leica has an arrangement with Huawei), but for those with the budget and desire to take their photography to a new level, Leica is a beautiful way of fulfilling that passion.
Leitz Park is open from 10am to 6pm Tuesday-Sunday; entry €9.